UNCG Campus Weekly

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Rachel Propst creates art in tribute to UNCG’s first African American students

022013Spotlight_Propst2Five framed pieces are on display in the MRC. Two women are featured in each.

“My work is meant to be a tribute to Joanne Smart Drane and Bettye Tillman, the first two African American women to graduate from UNCG,” Rachel Propst said.

Propst, who graduated last year from UNCG with a BFA degree in design, had been a student off and on since 2005. She is now building up a body of work as she considers applying for a master’s program.

The five works are not regular prints, she explained. She created them through a photographic printing process called cyanotype, where ultraviolet light creates the image. Art faculty member Leah Sobsey introduced her to the process.

The original photographs were taken in 1956 in what used to be the Shaw parlor here on campus, she explained.

The project started in the fall, after a conversation with an uncle. “He asked me if I knew who the first African-American students were that graduated from UNCG and I honestly didn’t know. I decided to go to university archives and research the story and history of these two remarkable women. I found five amazing black and white photographs and I wanted to bring them back to life in my own way.”

She says she wants her work to give people a glimpse into the lives of the two women who integrated Woman’s College (now called UNCG). “The year was 1956, two years after the Brown vs. Board of Education, four years before the Woolworth sit-in and eight years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed,” she explains. “They endured the looks and derogatory words that my generation never had to. Their courage to be the first should not be forgotten but celebrated.”

Propst had read online Drane’s oral history, recorded by University Archives.

In November she briefly spoke with her, at the rededication of the Quad. “Just meeting her was such a memorable experience,” Propst said.

But they didn’t really have a chance to talk much at the festivities, in which Drane was a featured speaker on the steps of Shaw Residence Hall, where she and Tillman had once lived.

But they did get together and get to know one another. The student visited her at her home in Raleigh. Propst showed all the prints to her.

Drane especially liked one, Propst noted.

On Feb. 6 at an artist reception in the MRC, lots of supporters – including Drane – were on hand. Propst talked about the art works and the full story of how they came to be. And she presented one framed work to Drane.

“I gave her her favorite one.”

As the reception ended, Propst reflected on her exhibition, featuring the first two black undergraduates at UNCG/Woman’s College. “It’s a tribute. And a thank you.”

The exhibition “A Tribute to Joanne Smart Drane and Bettye Tillman,” will be on display in UNCG’s Multicultural Resource Center, EUC, through March 7, 2013.

By Mike Harris
Photograph by Linda Dunston-Stacey (l-r, Rachel Propst and Joanne Smart Drane at reception)